Major Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam looks set to achieve an increased global profile (not before time). He is scheduled to be honoured at the Venice Film Festival in September where both Hindi and Tamil versions of his new film based on characters from the Ramayana will be screened.
But will it do any good in the Western media? I fear perhaps not. The film exists in two versions made at the same time in Tamil (as Raavanan) and Hindi (Raavan) with a third dubbed version, titled Villain in Telugu (I think that this is a dub of the Tamil film). All three were launched domestically and internationally on June 18. In the UK the Hindi version went out on 52 prints but only 13 prints of the Tamil version were released. On the quietest weekend of the year in UK cinemas (during the opening stages of the World Cup) both versions were ahead of all other major titles in terms of screen averages – with the Tamil version attracting nearly twice as many punters per screen as the more widely distributed Hindi version. Both films made the Top 15. Reliance Entertainment released the Hindi version alongside the Tamil and the dubbed Telugu versions in North America where the company now owns 190 screens under the BIG Cinemas brand. The launch was on 40 screens in 20 cities. In India, the film is already being deemed a ‘super hit’ in the South but a ‘flop’ in the North.
Unfortunately, the two films are not being reviewed in the mainstream UK and US media to any great extent – and when they are, reviewers tends to be fairly clueless about what they are seeing. In the UK, the Guardian assigned the film to one of its assistant writers on film, Cath Clarke, and this is what she wrote (in its entirety):
“Bollywood golden couple Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan star in this absurdly extravagant melodrama, rife with cliches, song-and-dance showstoppers, macho action sequences and lush tourist board-approved landscapes. Bachchan plays low-caste tribal leader Beera, a Robin Hood figure who kidnaps the local police chief’s feisty wife (Rai) in retaliation for a crime crackdown. Maybe it’s the forest air, or a touch of Stockholm syndrome, but she takes a liking to her captor; heaven knows why since Bachchan hams it up like Toshirô Mifune at his most snarlingly crazy-eyed. Meanwhile, her husband (Vikram) gives chase, bearing down with the full weight of the law. Which is hardly surprising since flashbacks show what a cracking wife she is, fetching him his dinner while singing sweet songs and dancing alluringly.” (Guardian 18 June)
Clarke wants to attack what she sees as the film’s sexism, which is fair enough, but she seems unaware of the Ramayana connection or the basic conventions of Indian popular cinema. It’s an indication of the sub-editor’s lack of knowledge that the film is referred to as the Tamil version. (Abhishek Bachchan is not in the Tamil version – which sees Tamil star Vikram changing roles from police chief to abductor.) Just to pick up two other ways in which this review is wrong-headed. First, the motive for the abduction is not because of a ‘crime crackdown’ – as Clarke should have noticed in the second half of the film. Second, the (admittedly spectacular) forest scenes are not there because they are ‘tourist-board approved’, but because the Ramayana action is situated in the forest, the contemporary references need the forest (see below) – and of course, spectacular settings are part of the conventional generic mix in mainstream popular Indian Cinema. There are only a couple of choreographed dance sequences – most of the music score underpins narrative development.
But is the film any good you ask? I’m really not sure. I was never less than gripped throughout, but I want to see it again before making a final judgement. The easiest course is simply to pass you over to Srikanth on The Seventh Art website since his extended discussion is far better informed than I could manage (and there is a fascinating long discussion in the Comments section). Perhaps it is most useful if I fill in some background and focus on aspects of the global status of the film. I’ve only seen the Hindi version (around here Urdu is the major South Asian language) but I’ll hope to see the Tamil version on DVD.
Raavan is a recognisable Mani Ratnam film in two ways:
1. It teams him up with his usual collaborators – fellow Southerners, Santosh Sivan as cinematographer and A. R. Rahman as composer and with familiar stars: Bachchan and Rai. (The couple were in Ratnam’s previous film, Guru, 2007. Rai also appeared, in her first film role, in Ratnam’s 1997 Tamil feature, Iruvar.) Like all Ratnam’s films since the early 1990s, the production company was Madras Talkies, Ratnam’s own company.
2. It features a central relationship set against one of India’s major social/political issues – in this case the guerilla wars between the security services and Maoist groups in the forests of North/Central Eastern India.
It is different in the conscious attempt to replay one of India’s most famous stories – the Ramayana. An earlier Ratnam film Thalapathi (1991) did something similar with Mahabbaratha. That film too had a high profile because of the status of its Tamil superstar hero Rajnikanth, but I don’t think that Mani Ratnam made the references to the classical tale quite as prominent.
We know a lot more about what Mani Ratnam hoped to achieve with Raavan/Raavanan because the film has been so well promoted and marketed. The official website offers a press pack for both the Hindi and Tamil versions. Bachchan and Rai have promoted the film solidly through personal appearances, as has A. R. Rahman. The coverage has stimulated a great deal of interest – and, inevitably, some disappointment amongst fans and critics.
Global box office
I’m most interested in what the fate of the two film versions tells us about Indian Cinema and its profile in the global cinema market. When you begin to investigate the figures, some interesting conclusions can be drawn. Here is how I see it after the first weekend:
Global performance (both versions combined): $8.5 million from 2309 screens in 25 territories for a $3,708 screen average – placing it at No 8 in the chart but with a screen average at No 3. (Screendaily figures)
When we try to breakdown this figure, we can find some data on the major territories.
Box Office India reports a ‘disappointing’ overseas take of $391,000 in UAE and $143,00 in Australia. In North America the take was $480,000. However the North American figures do not distinguish between the language versions. The UAE and Australian figures similarly do not seem to include Tamil figures.
IBOS often seems to me to be a highly dubious source of box-office data. On several previous occasions I’ve seen statements about films being a flop or ‘disaster’ only for the film to go on to produce healthy results (e.g. My Name is Khan). The website seems more intent on ‘bringing down’ superstars rather than actually reporting data carefully. In this posting, IBOS offer a damning report on ‘box-office failure':
“Reliance Big Pictures’s claiming a Rs. 53 crore combined weekend worldwide gross for Raavan with the Hindi Raavan collecting 38 crores in opening weekend, the Tamil version Raavanan collecting 11 crores and Telugu Villain only 4 crores. [A crore is 10 million.]“
There are two problems here. One is that there are no official collection figures for either Tamil or Telugu films published for public consumption. The other problem for IBOS is that although Reliance seem to have most of the distribution rights for the film, in the UK the distributor is Ayngaran International for the Tamil version – following a long collaboration with Madras Talkies. Ayngaran is now part of Eros, a major competitor for Reliance. Ayngaran has also held onto the rights for all other territories outside India (but presumably has done a deal in North America), so I wonder how accurate these ‘worldwide’ figures from IBOS are? If you want to see the Tamil version it is now playing on 15 sites in the UK and also in Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Singapore, Denmark, France, Holland and Germany as well as the US. All the cinemas showing the film are listed on Ayngaran’s website.
It would seem that the film has done reasonably well in Tamil Nadu where audiences generally have a more favourable response to films with classical references. Another report I’ve read suggests that because there was an unusual 5 day holiday in the state to coincide with a major ‘cultural conference’, the release was well-timed. Even so, we are left with what IBOS suggests is the clincher. The total production budget (funded by Reliance) was 100 crores, requiring a box office of 200 plus crores to break even. IBOS (rather gleefully it seems to me) suggests that the film won’t make this. Another news report suggests a wave of pirate copies and bit torrent downloads is undermining the release. Finally, the 4 crores box office for the Telugu version is heralded as evidence of a hit by Entertainment1 India. This is film in India today, but I think I’ll wait another couple of weeks before accepting all these figures. For the moment, I’d just urge anyone who gets the chance to watch any of the three versions of the film and make up their own minds.
Even watching this classic Mani Ratnam film on a terrible DVD with a degraded image and Hindi dubbing couldn’t diminish its power. Thalapathi represents the ultimate in Tamil Cinema during the early 1990s. Director Mani Ratnam, composer Illayaraja and cinematographer Santosh Sivan combine to present the superstars of Tamil and Malayalam Cinema, Rajnikanth and Mammootty in an epic gangster melodrama.
The outline narrative is based on the Indian epic narrative the Mahābhārata. I can’t pretend to be able to explain how the connection is made, but it is mentioned by several commentators. The film’s plot sees a teenage mother abandon her newborn baby during the Holi festival. The baby is later found by children and eventually brought up by a woman in a poor community. Twenty-five years later, the abandoned baby is now a man, a child of the community and fast becoming its protector and moral conscience. This is Suraj/Surya (Rajnikanth). In defending a woman, Surya beats up man who eventually dies from his injuries. The dead man worked for the local crime lord Devaraj (Mammootty), who recognising his qualities recruits Surya. The two soon become very close, saving each other’s lives at various points and gaining control in a community who fear the (corrupt) police and the threat of rival gangs. Devaraj and Surya are criminal and violent in retribution but they support the members of the local community. Surya becomes the man to go to for help – the ‘Thalapathi’ of the community.
The new power regime is then threatened by the arrival of a new District Collector, a young man (played by Arvind Swamy, later to star in Roja and Bombay) who is determined to ‘clean up’ the city. It is at this point that all the coincidences of melodrama come into play. Everyone turns out to be related to one of the other characters in some way and cross-loyalties are inevitable. At the centre of everything is Surya’s hurt at still being an ‘abandoned son’. (He rationalises the action of the mother he has never known by saying that he was a ‘black baby’ that she didn’t want.) ‘Mothers’ become important characters in the narrative, both in a functional and symbolic way. The audience knows that the narrative can only be resolved by violence and death. (The connection to the epic is partly in relation to the cross-loyalties to friends and families.)
The high melodrama is played out in terms of music, compositions, colours and highly choreographed dance and fight sequences. I confess that in the first half of the film, I found Surya’s excessive violence to be deeply disturbing. It occurred to me that the character was rather like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry – a fascist cop who was morally right but prepared to break every law and to punish the bad guys. I still thought this in part two but as the melodrama intensified, it did become more understandable if not more acceptable.
The real value of the film for me was simply to see Rajnikanth in action. This is his only Mani Ratnam film which seems a surprise. I can see why he is a superstar. He exudes charisma despite lacking the pale features, aristocratic face and toned body of so many Bollywood male leads and in this film sporting a mane of seemingly back-combed hair. Like the beefy moustachioed Mammootty, he could only be a superstar in the South. There is something warm and vulnerable about him. He cries and comforts small children quite naturally – and a moment later beats opponents to a pulp without blinking.
I’m wondering now whether I can bring myself to watch Mani Ratnam’s earlier Nayakan, another gangster epic starring the other Tamil superstar, Kamal Hassan. Like Thalapathi, this sees a working-class boy take on rival gangsters and the police in another massively successful film. But the DVD that I rented looks unwatchable, so perhaps I’ll look for a better copy.
The summer is a chance to watch some of my archive of videotapes and transfer those worth using to DVD. Kannathil Muthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek) is one of two films made back in Tamil Nadu by Mani Ratnam after his Hindi experience with Dil Se. The other was Alai Payuthey (2000), one of my favourite films that I have watched several times. Although my experience of Mani Ratnam’s work is limited, I’m reasonably confident in asserting that his films shot in the South are better than those made elsewhere in India. When I watch the Tamil films, I really do wonder why anyone bothers to watch the majority of Bollywood films. The cliché is that Bollywood represents a fantasy India constructed just for the vicarious entertainment of the cinema audience. By contrast, Mani Ratnam’s Tamil films deal with real social issues set in ‘real’ environments. I use the scare quotes to emphasise that Ratnam’s world is not a simple reflection of reality (which we all know is impossible on film) but that his construction of reality does draw on the experiences of families living in a recognisable world.
Kannathil Muthamittal tells the story of a child born in a refugee camp for Sri Lankan Tamils in India and subsequently adopted by an engineer/writer who marries the girl next door in order to qualify as an adoptive father. The couple then decide to tell the child about the adoption on her ninth birthday. Mani Ratnam reportedly based the story on the experience of American parents taking their adopted daughter back to the Philippines to meet her mother. The trip from Chennai to Northern Sri Lanka is much shorter, but much more dangerous. The combination of an emotional struggle within a family and an attempted reunion literally in the midst of guerilla war is potentially overwhelming. But Mani Ratnam knows how to handle it, as he had already demonstrated with Bombay (1995), set amidst communal violence.
How does he do it? First, it is important to recognise that he has a conventional popular narrative approach. The adoptive couple are middle class with the resources to do things. Father is a production line engineer who conveniently has plenty of spare time to write short stories (using his wife’s name, ‘Indira’, as a pseudonym). But his wife is no stay at home housewife. She is a morning newscaster on a Chennai TV station. So far, so glamorous and the father is played by Madhavan, Mani Ratnam’s discovery from TV who has become both a Tamil and Hindi star. Madhavan is a likable presence and I think he plays the role well. Mother is played by Simran, who I haven’t seen before, but who I thought very impressive. The trick is to have this middle class couple played by attractive stars, but to create a mise en scène which doesn’t turn them into fantasy creatures. They have children who wet the bed and squabble, a grandfather and in-laws who behave normally and they live in a recognisable community. In many ways, Ratnam achieves what the best Hollywood directors often managed in the studio period – the creation of heroic characters who were in one sense ‘just like us’ and in another ‘able to do impossible things’.
But for this story to work, the child actor playing the child Amudha has to be perfect and Keerthana is. In the brief intro to the film as screened on Channel 4, Mani Ratnam described how he looked at many girls but chose Keerthana even though she had no experience (but her parents did). She then quite naturally became a high profile character on the shoot. Her performance is extraordinary. I’m sure some of it must come from sensitive direction, but the institutional apparatus of casting and preparing children for auditions must be important too. I strongly believe that this is something Hollywood could learn from the approach here, in Japan and often in the UK (at least for social realist films). Most of the time, I can’t bear to watch Hollywood children, who seem like tiny aliens. Keerthana as Amudha is sparky, sulky, excited, intelligent, vulnerable and assertive – a real, live girl with believable behaviour and emotions.
My main prompt to watch the film was the appearance of Nandita Das (who strikes me as a younger version of Shabana Azmi). She plays the birth mother, Shyama, in the prologue and again in the closing sequence – and she’s very good. Both Das and Simran are from outside Tamil Nadu. I mention this partly because Mani Ratnam’s script includes at least three references to skin tones. Indian film stars are generally light-skinned. Darker skin is a marker of both lower social class and also ethnic difference so that Southern Dravidians are generally darker. The subtitles inform us that Shyama means ‘black’, yet Nandita Das is noticeably ligher skinned than the other women. Back in Tamil Nadu the adoptive father’s sister wonders why he is adopting a ‘black baby’. The other use of language that I found intriguing was in the references to Chennai/Madras. At home everyone refers to Madras, but in Sri Lanka, father says that they have come from Chennai. I’m not sure what to make of this. Is it exactly the same as the decision to use Mumbai/Bombay or Kolkata/Calcutta?
The other reason why the film works so well is the combination of A. R. Rahman’s music and Ravi K. Chandran’s cinematography. I thought Rahman’s music for Guru was disappointing, but here he is on top form. The cinematography is just wonderful. It helps to have locations as stunning as those in Tamil Nadu, but I particularly liked the shot selection and especially the use of long shots. Although a different cinematographer was on Alai Payuthey, I thought the overall use of sound and image was similar.
Kannathil Muthamittal is available on DVD in the UK from Ayngaran.
Somehow, I found the time to watch one of the Mani Ratnam films I’d collected. Yuva (2004) represents something that used to happen in European Cinema in the 1920s and early 1930s quite regularly, but only rarely since – the same script made almost simultaneously in two different languages with different actors. Yuva is the Hindi version of a Tamil film produced by Ratnam’s Madras Talkies. An accident delayed shooting on one film and both versions ended up opening on the same day.
The Hindi version did make it to the UK but I missed it. I found a DVD on the Lovefilm rental site. It’s a poor quality DVD with a low resolution image, poor sound and dreadful English subtitles – not only with woeful spelling and grammar, but also out of synch with the images. It’s very difficult to work out who is saying what to whom. The fact that I still enjoyed the film very much is a tribute to the professionalism of the creative team.
Yuva is an important film for several reasons — even though it seems to have flopped at the box office. The title refers to ‘youth’, I think, though the youngest of the lead actors was about 26 in 2004. The story involves the chance meeting of three men on the Howrah Bridge in Kolkotta. As with his earlier film, Alai Payuthey (2000), the opening incident then moves into flashback to tell the stories behind the meetings before returning to the ‘present’ for the last hour (160 mins movie). The three men represent different class positions and different basic ideologies and the story focuses upon the attempts by student politicians to take a stand against a corrupt party machine. The great Om Puri, so well known in the UK, plays the politician villain to perfection.
The film is star studded, although I’ve seen comments that suggest that for Abhishek Bachchan, this film was very important since by accepting a ‘heavy’ role, he widened his range successfully. I did feel that the other actors were familiar, but it was only afterwards that I realised that three of them were in the Othello adaptation, Omkara (2006).
There is a great deal of violence in the film and the finale is rather cartoon-like. However, the violence is necessary, I think, and I thought Bachchan made an excellent villain. There are three aspects of the film I really liked. One was the political narrative and the way in which the script touched on what I take to be current political issues across India. The second was the range of songs and I loved the ‘political’ song sequence. Ratnam does seem to use song sequences differently than in mainstream Hindi films. Finally, it was just great to see a film set in Kolkotta. Several commentators have complained that only Om Puri managed a Bengali accent. I’m not equipped to spot that, but I appreciated the views of the city (although I noted that thanks went to Southern Railways, so I wondered how much footage was shot in Madras?). I realise that although over the years I have seen quite a few Bengali films, they have all been art films or ‘parallel cinema’ films. This was the first Hindi film I’d seen set in the city and it was good to see it soon after The Namesake. What a treat too to see trams and the metro as well as trains – Mani Ratnam’s films seem full of scenes on public transport of all kinds as well as motorbikes and cars.
There is an interesting review of the film on this American university site, although I’m not sure that I totally agree with its analysis of the closing sequence of the film. It does seem odd that Ratnam chose to set the political narrative in West Bengal, although if he had to transpose it from the south, it probably makes more sense than placing it in other northern states. I suspect that I need to know much more about Bengali political parties to read the ending properly.
I’m going to try another Ratnam film soon.